Education Either Makes Us or Breaks Us

Director's Corner
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ECW Executive Director Yasmine Sherif in Nigeria

There is a fork in the road before us. We have to choose who we are as human beings and as a human family. Do we break humanity or do we make it?

As I write, the already staggering number of 224 million children and adolescents denied their right to quality education because of violently cruel armed conflicts, forced displacement and climate disasters is fast escalating. If we continue in this direction, we will soon hit a quarter of a billion crisis-affected children who urgently need quality education. I dare not imagine the number of children and youth affected 50 years from now – unless we act now. We are on a path of destruction and despair when we should be on a path of hope and opportunity.  

All wars, all breaches of international laws and the ongoing disregard for peaceful conflict-resolution are caused entirely by adults – never by school-aged children. The same applies to man-made climate-induced disasters. Yet, it is innocent and vulnerable children who bear the brunt. Our most precious and innocent carry this heavy burden on their tiny shoulders with little hope for their future. It is unconscionable.

From Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon and Yemen to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, North-East Nigeria, Sudan and the Sahel, from Haiti and Ukraine to the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and many more humanitarian crises in between where ECW invests. Why has the world chosen to fail them? Who are we and why are we doing so? Did something go wrong with our education or did we lack it all together?  

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres stated at the recent Human Rights Council: “Conflicts are taking a terrible toll as parties to war trample on human rights and humanitarian law … Parties to conflict are turning a blind eye to international law, the Geneva Conventions and even the United Nations Charter.”

Indeed, all that we built after World War II and the Holocaust – the United Nations, Human Rights and related International Law – is being trampled upon with disrespect and impunity. Yet, it is the youngest and most vulnerable who are paying the heaviest price.  

It is time for self-examination, individually and collectively. It is time to stop this horrific spiral downwards. It is time to start anew, to step up together and reclaim our humanity. 

As the global fund for education in emergencies and protracted crises within the United Nations, Education Cannot Wait (ECW), is determined to work with all partners –  UN agencies, civil society, Member States, Education Ministries, local communities, teachers, parents and school-aged children –  to jointly turn this global education nightmare and its related crises of humanity around.

We are committed to the UN Secretary-General’s new system-wide United Nations Agenda for Protection. We continue to uphold the UN Charter and to defend the Sustainable Development Goals through SDG4 to ensure an inclusive, equitable and continued quality education for all children and adolescents left furthest behind in the darkest corners of the world.  

The Summit of the Future in September and the New Agenda for Peace are crucial opportunities to recommit to end violence in all its forms, ensure universal human rights, and build peace in our times. Education must be a central building block in delivering on these commitments.

Because the world is created at home and in school. It starts with parents and teachers during children’s most formative years. They impact our identity, our value system, our intellectual, emotional, social and even spiritual development. Education is therefore the most critical, foundational priority for the world to be able to survive and thrive. Education determines who we are, who we will become and whether we choose to either advance or destroy humanity and Mother Earth.

Let me share just one of thousands of illustrative examples. On a recent joint mission to North-East Nigeria with our dedicated co-chairs of ECW’s Executive Committee – Germany and Norway along with representatives from the Government of Nigeria, UN agencies and local partners – we met with girls and boys whose dreams of education have been interrupted by this forgotten crisis.

Two million children and adolescents in the North-East of the country continue to suffer from the ongoing insurgency by Boko Haram and other armed groups. Attacks on schools, abduction, enslavement, sexual violence, child marriage, forced recruitment are among the litany of human rights violations that have become all too commonplace in the world.

We met with survivors of conflict-related sexual violence – girls and young women whose lives and their dreams have been ripped apart by the perpetrators of these cruel, heinous attacks. Yet, thanks to the ECW investment in jointly coordinated efforts of UNICEF, Norwegian Refugee Council and the Global Survivors Fund (established by Nobel Peace Prize Laureates Dr. Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad), we met with young girls who had fled Boko Haram and are now rebuilding their lives through the highest standard of reparative education, including specialized mental health and psycho-social services. Through the power of inclusive, safe, quality education, they have transformed themselves from broken souls to extra-ordinary healers and role-models for other affected girls.

Each one of these girls is an inspiration and a testament to the human spirit. If they can transform, then so can we. We can make the choice not to continue further down the abyss of a broken world-order and instead choose to move upwards towards a greater, collective humanity. We can decide to restore the international world-order and the dignity and rights of every child and young person.

We have a chance to do so. And we must do so; now.

This is the Africa Year of Education. It is worth noting that only 1 out 10 school-aged children in sub-Saharan Africa can read a simple text. This is outrageous and unacceptable in the 21st century and cannot be allowed to go on. With African leadership and long-awaited financial resources, Africa can and must reclaim its rightful place in this world through an inclusive and continued quality education.

In this month’s insightful ECW high-level interview, we feature the wise words of African Union Commissioner for Education, Science, Technology & Innovation Professor Mohammed Belhocine. By delivering locally-led initiatives – supported by multilateral institutions such as Education Cannot Wait and our strategic global partners – we can open the school doors for millions of children and young people, who are all yearning to create a better world in the 21st century.

February also marked the second anniversary of the brutal war in Ukraine. With our partners – including government, donors, civil society and the private sector – we launched the far-reaching Ukraine Multi-Year Resilience Programme with the Minister of Education of Ukraine at the United Nations in New York. Globally, we continue to advocate for protection, mental health and psycho-social support and other holistic education opportunities for the girls and boys living on the frontlines of this horrible war, and all the world’s pressing humanitarian crises.

With the ongoing and unprecedented brutalities in Gaza, we steadfastly repeat the UN Secretary-General’s call for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire and unimpeded humanitarian access, as well as the recent UN Security-Council Resolution demanding an immediate ceasefire, and the immediate and unconditional release of hostages and the urgent need to expand the flow of aid into Gaza.

Because we cannot continue like this. Education is about helping a young child to mature and blossom. In the same vein, the United Nations was established to achieve global maturity and elevate humanity.

Through the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration for Human Rights, a collective effort was made to support each human being to attain their potential in safety and freedom. In the final analysis, when all else falls away, the story of the mature soul is one that touches all with profound awareness and enables others to attain their humanity too. Who would want to break this down?

Indeed, now is the time to start anew and enable every child and young person to enjoy an inclusive, continued and conducive quality education – one that helps them mature and become the full potential of their and our shared humanity.

Let’s not discourage them further; we must rather inspire them through action.

About our Director

ECW Executive Director Yasmine Sherif
Yasmine Sherif

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